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The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam

Rubáiyát Of Omar Khayyám - Omar Khayyám, Edward FitzGerald, Daniel Karlin

Omar Khayyam (Ghiyāth ad-Dīn Abu'l-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī: 1048 - 1131), born in Nishapur, educated in Samarkand and professionally active in Bukhara, was a brilliant mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who wrote poetry during the last years of his life,(*) when, after his patrons were killed or removed from power  towards the end of the Seljuk sultanate and while new waves of Turkic tribes were breaking over the crumbling walls of Central Asian cities, he gave up science and returned to Nishapur, broke and despondent. His poetry took the form of quatrains (rubāʿī in the singular) written in New Persian, and he was able to wrest some interesting results from this very constrained form.


My GRamazon friend Jan-Maat has written a fine review




about the the Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam in which he points out the rather limited range of topics of Khayyam's verse:


"The themes are the impermanence of life, the unknowability of the future and afterlife, the enjoyment of the present moment and Dust Thou Art, and Unto Dust Shalt Thou Return. A pie chart illustrating Khayyam's poetic impulses would not need many slices."


True enough - he graciously didn't mention the innumerable paeans to wine which do tend to become a bit tedious. But there is another aspect to Khayyam's poetry which should be mentioned; his skepticism was expressed in the face of, nay, against the burgeoning movement of dogmatic certainty and intellectual suppression led by stock conservative Islamic theologians and aided by Ghazali (Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī: c. 1058 - 1111), an extremely gifted theologian and jurist trained in Greek philosophy who wrote lucidly against the role of reason and logic in any matter touched upon by religion. The imams were already beginning to significantly tighten the screws on the freedom of thought and expression and producing tens of thousands of cookie cutter ideologues in their new madrasas (Ghazali was the headmaster of one with 3,000 students), and the Sunnis and Shiites were merrily sending each other to Hell in internecine wars for having the temerity of disagreeing.(**)  This is the setting in which Khayyam wrote(***)


Oh Canon Jurists, we work better than you,

With all this drunkenness, we're more sober:

You drink men's blood; we, the vine's.

Be honest - which of us is more bloodthirsty?


The imams were executing people for less. Ghazali demanded in one of his principal texts that those soiled by Greek philosophy should be put to death. That Ghazali himself had studied the Greeks intensively was passed over quietly.


A religious man said to a whore, "you're drunk,

Caught every moment in a different snare."

She replied, "Oh Shaikh, I am what you say,

Are you what you seem?"


And how about this denial of religious certainty?


How long shall I lay bricks on the face of the seas?

I am sick of idolators and the temple.

Khayyam, who said that there will be a hell?

Who's been to hell, and who's been to heaven?


Granted, Khayyam probably didn't go down to the bazaar, read these to the general public and call for insurrection (after all, he lived into his 80's).


As the relative intellectual freedom of his youth slowly disappeared, as the armies protecting the high civilization of the Central Asian oases met defeat again and again - and let's not forget the personal anguish of an older man whose wealth and success is an unretrievable matter of the past - it is not so difficult to understand his despondency, a despondency which verged upon despair. He even went so far as to deny the value of the intellectual efforts he made as a younger man.


My mind has never lacked learning,

Few mysteries remained unconned;

I have meditated for seventy-two years night and day,

To learn that nothing has been learned at all.


A number of persons have exerted themselves to demonstrate that Khayyam could not be the author of the most pessimistic quatrains, claiming that he could not be hypocritical or self-contradictory (with respect to his earlier, confident philosophical tomes). Perhaps, but what is more likely is that those authors have some other axe to grind or have never met one of the many elderly persons who end their lives in bitter disappointment under circumstances less crushing than Khayyam's. We don't all go out with the smile of wisdom and serenity upon our faces... 


(*) S. Frederick Starr is not the least uncertain about this in his excellent Lost Enlightenment




(**) The fact that things are no better in these respects one thousand years later is..., well, words fail me.


(***) The translations above are the relatively recent renderings of Avery and Heath-Stubbs reviewed by Jan-Maat. They are accounted to be much more faithful to the meaning of the originals, as opposed to the famous English versions of Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald acknowledged freely that he was "rendering" and not translating Khayyam's verses. I own an edition which contains all five versions of FitzGerald's Ruba'iyat. Here is one of the more heretical poems in FitzGerald's words:


The Revelations of Devout and Learn'd

Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn'd

   Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep

They told their fellows, and to Sleep return'd.


And who, pray tell, would be willing to discard this?


The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit

   Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.


I'm keeping my FitzGerald, but it now shares a shelf with Avery and Heath-Stubbs, who, along with other considerations, translated more than twice as many quatrains as FitzGerald did.